August 8, 2022

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GE’s radio station WGY gave its inaugural broadcast live from the Kenmore Ballroom in Albany...

GE’s radio station WGY gave its inaugural broadcast live from the Kenmore Ballroom in Albany on Feb. 20, 1922, an event that launched just the 10th radio station in the country and also put the Capital Region at the forefront of broadcast and entertainment. That historic day is being celebrated on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 20, with a recreation of the original broadcast, a project that has brought into collaboration three cultural organizations of the area, Schenectady Light Opera Company, Musicians of Ma’alwyck and miSci. Ticketed audience members will be welcomed for the event and the performance can be heard live on WGY (810 AM and 103.1 FM), which is devoting the entire afternoon to centennial programing.
“GE engineers wanted to start a station but the head of engineering thought it was a passing fad. An engineer named Walter Baker thought it was too good to pass up and went to the publicity manager and convinced him to start a radio station,” says Chris Hunter, vice president of miSci, the science and technology museum in Schenectady that houses the vast GE archives.

“At the time, GE was becoming aware of the value of their brand,” continues Hunter. “The publicity department latched onto the idea of a radio station for public good will, a way of giving back to community. GE was also making all of the transmitting equipment for stations and through a part ownership with RCA was also making the radios for consumers. WGY became a showcase for technology.”

Besides GE’s focus of “branding,” the company pursued another endeavor that has a contemporary resonance — the need to make “content.”
“There was music playing constantly on the air and it was all live. Walter Damrosch conducted the GE Orchestra. They played music of Sibelius who was a popular living composer. It’s stunning, this caliber of music right in Schenectady,” says Ann-Marie Barker-Schwartz, founder of the Musicians of Ma’alwyck.
Besides having performances in its studio, WGY also broadcast from the ballrooms of hotels in downtown Albany, including the Kenmore, Ten Eycke and DeWitt Clinton. Well into the 1940s, artists like Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra were drawn to these venues because of the opportunity for exposure on WGY, which was heard across the Eastern Seaboard.

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Just a couple of years after launching the station, GE execs were pleasantly surprised to learn from a survey that 50 percent of citizens of Albany, Schenectady and Troy already owned radios. That’s according to Hunter of miSci, who also points out the involvement of local talent. “There was representation of the region from the beginning.  You had the engineers from Schenectady, a theater company from Troy and an announcing staff from the teachers college in Albany.”

Today WGY airs a news/talk format and is owned by iHeartMedia. The centennial celebrations have been overseen by news and program director Jeff Wolf.  Last month his team launched a series of podcasts titled “Wireless: 100 Years of WGY” featuring discussions with staff members past and present. More events are in the offing.
To commemorate that first broadcast, Wolf wanted a new radio play and he turned for guidance to Schenectady Light Opera Company. SLOC President Matthew Dembling suggested writer Ben McCauley, a 31-year old native of Colonie now living in Chicago. Also an improvising performer, McCauley has worked extensively in creating scripted comedies with live sound effects. It’s just that rather than being broadcast on radio, they’re distributed as podcasts. (Some of his work can be heard at starlightradiodreams.com.)

For his commission from WGY, McCauley took inspiration from the inaugural broadcast, which featured an adaptation of the Eugene Walter play “The Wolf: A Play of the Canadian Woods.”
“I took it upon myself to find the play and some of it was rather outdated so I changed the plot a bit. It’s now a fictionalized telling of the WGY Players putting on the first radio play,” says McCauley. Titled “A play of a play in the Canadian Woods,” the piece calls for a cast of six who are drawn from SLOC and also the WGY staff. The director is Michael Camelo, who also serves as a cast member.
While all this was coming together last year, Barker-Schwartz was following a trail of research that led to WGY and its upcoming centennial. Last summer she got in touch with the station and soon her planned concert was folded into the broadcast. “It was a natural fit of course,” says Wolf, the program director.

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Besides being a violinist and impresario, Barker-Schwartz is something of a cultural historian for the region. In the GE archives at miSci, she examined years of the biweekly corporate newsletters. Each issue had program listings for WGY, but there was much more the company provided for its employees, things like fishing competitions, a women’s camp at Lake George, English lessons for immigrants, and musical bands from each division of the company. “It’s a fascinating slice of life that’s hard to wrap your head around today,” she says.

It’s not hard to image that such research will be fodder for further programming for Barker-Schwartz’s ensemble. But for the centennial broadcast, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck are hewing close to what was done 100 years ago. The lineup includes a movement of the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski (the first music ever played on the station) and Sibelius’ “Rigaudon” for violin and piano. Tenor Charles Eaton will perform songs by Rachmaninoff, Kern and Hermann Lohr, with Max Caplan at the piano.
The event will start at 3 p.m. with a talk by Hunter of miSci about the early days of radio before and after the launch of WGY. “GE’s involvement in radio goes back to 1906,” he says. “Before there were tubes, they built alternators and a generator helped send radio signals. These weighed 4,000 pounds.”
Also at the Kenmore will be a pop-up exhibit of photographs of the era. It’s just a sampling of what’s available in the GE archive, which comprises 800 boxes of corporate documents and publications, including 4,000 photos. A more extensive photo exhibit, “WGY: Radio’s Laboratory Celebrates Its Centennial,” is currently on view at the museum and coming in the fall is a major exhibition on the history and evolution of communication technology.

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A live broadcast featuring Musicians of Ma’alwyck and Schenectady Light Opera Company
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, February 20
Where: Kenmore Ballroom, 76 North Pearl St, Albany
Tickets: $35. Available at the door or order online at: musiciansofmaalwyck.org.  
Note: The program begins with a presentation by miSci archivist Chris Hunter on the history of WGY and the early days of broadcasting. The performance starts at 4 p.m. and will be broadcast live on WGY (810AM and 103.1FM), where on-air centennial celebrations start at 1 p.m.

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Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.
 

 

Musical homage to a radio station appeared first on maserietv.com.